• Raber Aziz | Media and Communications Officer, IOM Iraq

June 10, IRAQ – Daesh’s genocidal campaign in 2014 in Iraq sent millions into displacement, destroyed tens of thousands of homes and vital infrastructure, and killed thousands. Ten years later, there are still challenges, but Iraq has made major strides towards full recovery. Nearly all camps for displaced persons have been closed and most of the displaced Iraqis have returned home; the humanitarian assistance from the United Nations agencies and other international NGOs has shifted to recovery and resilience support; and most recently the Iraqi Government requested an end to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI)’s mandate in Iraq by end of 2025 – a significant indictor of the progress Iraq has made towards recovery and the Iraqi Government’s readiness to take full responsibility and ownership of its people.

I worked for nine of those ten years as a media and communications officer with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Iraq; and have witnessed and documented the country’s journey from active conflict to recovery.  On this 10th anniversary of the invasion of the most horrific terrorist organization in recent history, join me as I flip through my archives. Through various assignments, I photographed the magnitude of the conflict, the scale of the humanitarian response and the extent of Iraq’s amazing recovery.

Among the Clouds: After Daesh attacked Sinjar in August 2014, about 50,000 Yazidis were trapped on Mount Sinjar for days without food or water before the Iraqi Army conducted airdrops by helicopter. Despite breaking the siege around mid-August 2014, thousands stayed on the mountain for years after – as pictured in this photo that I took three years into their displacement - because they were too afraid to leave the mountain. © IOM Iraq 2017/Raber Aziz

Martyrs and Missing: Sinjar was retaken from Daesh in December the same year by Kurdish forces, but a little too late and at a very heavy price:  The town was in ruins, and Daesh had committed a genocide against the Yazidi community. The faces in this photo are displayed in the school of Kocho which has been converted into a remembrance museum. These photos are but a small number of the victims and the missing girls and women of the community. © IOM Iraq 2022/Raber Aziz

Sheep In Black: In April 2016, as the Iraqi forces built up numbers near Makhmour, south of Erbil, to launch a counteroffensive to retake Haj Ali village and Qayyarah town in preparation for the Mosul battle, Daesh set fire to all the oil wells in the area to cover themselves from the aerial bombardments. The oilfields were aflame for months afterwards sending thick plumes of smoke into the sky that left its dark imprint on everything including these sheep. A sunny day felt like a gloomy winter afternoon. It was under these gloomy skies, after the liberation of Qayyarah, that IOM in Iraq worked night and day to set up Qayyarah camp, which received thousands of displaced persons in the following months. I could feel the air and the ground tremble and shake with every airstrike in the distance. One rocket fell within a few hundred meters from us during a needs assessment mission, where IOM’s technical teams were determining the grounds for a the construction of a second camp, Haj Ali. © IOM Iraq 2016/Raber Aziz

Racing Against the Clock: When the Iraqi forces launched the counteroffensive for Mosul in 2016, there was nowhere in the governorate to shelter the two million people that had been displaced by the fighting. IOM was tasked with the construction of Qayyara camp, which was only partially completed when the fighting reached Mosul’s suburbs in Gogjali. I was at Qayyarah camp when thousands of IDPs arrived from the frontlines in dozens of buses. They looked exhausted, frightened, and malnourished after more than two years of living under the horrors of Daesh occupation. Every person that walked into the camp had a heartbreaking tragic story to tell. I heard so many horrific stories it was impossible to imagine how anyone put one step in front of the other to find refuge. It took a heavy emotional toll on me as well. © IOM Iraq 2016/Raber Aziz

An Airstrip of People: Qayyarah camp was previously an abandoned military airstrip, and ran across one end of the camp to the other. It was used for the camp management offices and for daily distributions of humanitarian assistance. As far as the eye could see, there were rows and rows of tents, and a sea of people on the runway. I wanted to highlight the sheer scale of the camp, could not fly my drone to get the best shot. Flying drones over the camp was prohibited by the Iraqi authorities because Daesh had been using them to drop bombs on the Iraqi forces. Instead, I used the only possible solution available and climbed onto the roof of a nearby fuel tanker. Subsequently, Qayyarah camp would become the largest in Iraq with 60,000 individuals at its peak. © IOM Iraq 2016/Raber Aziz

Ghost Town: Months of intense fighting between Iraqi forces and Daesh in Mosul left the city in ruins. The first time I visited West Mosul after it’s fall, the amount of destruction sent shivers down my spine; it looked like a ghost town. In early April 2017, a UN Habitat damage assessment reported that 1,140 housing sites were destroyed in West Mosul. ©2016 IOM Iraq/Raber Aziz

Fallen Comrades: Victory over Daesh came at the high cost of over 10,000 civilian deaths from the Mosul battle alone, with several thousand of the Iraqi and Kurdish forces dead. Two soldiers pay homage to their fallen comrades in Baghdad. ©2018 IOM Iraq/Raber Aziz

Exposed to Elements: For years after the Daesh conflict, hundreds of thousands of people could not return to their homes due to destruction and security concerns. Making matters worse, there were not enough camps in the country to accommodate the six million people displaced due to the war. Many people such as these women in Tikrit, Salah al-Din Governorate, that I visited in 2018 during an assessment mission with IOM’s shelter team, had to live in dangerous conditions in unfinished or damaged buildings; exposed to the heat of the summer, the cold of the winter and anything that could crawl through the windowless, and doorless crumbling buildings. ©2018 IOM Iraq /Raber Aziz

Resilience in Henna: Despite the atrocities that many internally displaced persons had seen, the resilience of the Iraqi people has always been inspiring. These little girls may not have seen a new set of clothes in years, but were excited for Eid celebrations in Haj Ali camp, applying henna on their hair for its red highlights. Some lucky others found love and tied the knot in the camp. ©2017 IOM Iraq /Raber Aziz

Turn of Events: As if living in the camps was not difficult enough, heavy rainfalls in the winter of 2018 caused flooding in parts of Qayyarah and Jedda camps. I went to document the damage the following day and was walking in ankle-deep sediments from the floods. The families told me the flood level was more than knee-deep, which had damaged all their belongings completely. IOM deployed Rapid Assessment and Response Teams within hours after the floods to assess the situation and distribute new items such as blankets, mattresses, heaters, kitchenware, and clothing to the affected families. ©2018 IOM Iraq /Raber Aziz

Rising Again: Shortly after the announcement of victory over Daesh, Iraq took a significant step towards recovery by launching The National Development Plan 2018-2022, aspiring to become a developed country, both economically and politically. IOM Iraq launched the Enterprise Development Fund (EDF) in 2019, designed to support livelihoods and rapid job creation by revitalizing the private sector and contributing to economic development. Since then, the EDF has provided financing to over 2,400 small and medium enterprises across Iraq through helping to create over 11,000 new jobs. © 2019 IOM Iraq/Raber Aziz

Homecoming: By 2019, tens of thousands of displaced families, as seen in this photo from Haj Ali camp, had left the camp and returned home. By September of the same year, Haj Ali, Al Salamiya and some other camps were officially closed due to extensive returns. While excitement and joy took over the scene for the returning families, one man in Amriyat Al Fallujah camp who was choosing to stay in the camp summarized his family’s situation for me, which would apply to thousands of others as well: They had no reason to return home because his home in west Anbar was destroyed, infrastructure was destroyed, there was no public services, and his children would not be able to go to school. © 2019 IOM Iraq/Raber Aziz

Never Again: Violent extremism in Iraq had left tens of thousands of victims and extensive damage to the infrastructure across the country, as well as disruption of services. In 2019, Iraq launched the National Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism Conducive to Terrorism to prevent violent extremism in the future. Many international and local NGOs joined hands towards this goal. In 2020, IOM launched Wasl Civil Society Fund that was set up to support 41 local civil society organizations to deliver 50 projects to catalyze community-ed initiatives that address drivers of instability, displacement, and violent extremism. One of those NGOs is Young Messengers, who led the construction of a monument at the entrance of Shoura Town, south of Mosul. As seen in the background of this photo, young men are celebrating its unveiling in 2024, by which time Iraq had also designated 12th February as the International Day for the Prevention of Violent Extremism, approved by the UN General Council in December 2022. © 2024 IOM Iraq/Raber Aziz

The Landmark Law: Gulan survived the Daesh genocide because she was deemed too old to be kidnapped as a sex slave. Her two sons and husband were taken by Daesh and never heard of again. When I visited her in 2021 in Sharia camp, Duhok Governorate, she lived alone in her tent. She was quiet, spoke in hushed tones, and her eyes carried a deep sorrow. A few old mattresses and blankets, an old air cooler, and some plastic kitchenware was all she had. She held on to this broken sewing machine, sitting in the middle of her tent. Her son had bought it for her many years ago and she could not part from it, even though it wasn’t functional anymore. Gulan was one of thousands of survivors of Daesh genocide who had been waiting for reparations or some sort of support from the government for many years. In March 2021, the Iraqi parliament passed the Yazidi Survivors Law (YSL), which established a framework for the provision of financial support and other forms of reparations to survivors, including a monthly salary, a plot of land, access to health and mental health services. Survivors apply for the reparations through an online portal; applications are reviewed and approved by a panel at the Directorate General for Survivors Affairs (DGSA) set up by the Iraqi government specifically for that purpose. IOM Iraq provided technical support and capacity building through the process form the review of the draft law to its implementation. © 2021 IOM Iraq/Raber Aziz

Heartbroken, But Healing: Over the years, many of the mass graves containing the victims of Daesh genocide have been unearthed, the exhumed remains are identified and returned to Sinjar, and laid to rest in Solagh Memorial Cemetery. I have been to two of these reburials over the years, and they are always emotionally overwhelming, but their homecoming provides closure for thousands of family members whether they knew of the fate of their loved ones or not. It is an important part in the collective healing of the Yazidi community, who have suffered incalculable losses during under the genocidal occupation of Daesh.  ©2022 IOM Iraq/Raber Aziz

Towards Durable Solutions: An empty camp in Amriyat Al Fallujah - the last of camp of Anbar Governorate was closed in 2022. And as of 2023, through IOM’s Facilitated Voluntary Movement (FVM) hundreds of families have registered, returned to their homes or relocated to new areas. IOM provides transportation, and upon return shelter rehabilitation support, livelihoods support, and more to support durable solutions for the remaining displaced persons who were unable to return home in the previous years. ©2022 IOM Iraq/Raber Aziz

Good Tidings: In March 2023, the Iraqi society woke up to the news of survivors of Daesh genocide receiving their first batch of benefits under the Yazidi Survivors Law (YSL), which included a monthly salary paid to them by the DGSA through debit cards, displayed here by Sadam, a survivor, during a ceremony held at the DGSA in Mosul. Since then, the GDSA has worked to expand the reparations to include all survivors of genocide, including from the Christian, Shabak, and Turkmen communities. Sadam told me after the ceremony that receiving reparations makes them feel like the government is taking full ownership of them and is there to support them. ©2023 IOM Iraq/Raber Aziz

Memorializing the Genocide: In October 2023, the Yazidi Genocide Memorial was inaugurated to honor the Yazidi victims of genocide. The ceremony was a very emotional moment for the community: partly because it was the first time the Yazidis had a dedicated space to collectively mourn their dead; and partly because the memorial itself is built around a mass grave known as the “Mothers Grave”. This is where Daesh executed and buried more than 90 elderly Yazidi women in an unfinished swimming pool that was meant to be for the community’s youth center. There were many survivors whose mothers were killed and buried in that mass grave – now at the center of the memorial – including Nobel Laureate Nadia Murad’s own mother. IOM constructed the memorial with support from Nadia’s Initiative and USAID. ©2023 IOM Iraq/Raber Aziz

The Silent Enemy: In parallel to the Daesh conflict in Iraq, another silent enemy was also working in the background and contributing to displacement in Iraq: climate change. With the scale of the Daesh conflict, the Government of Iraq did not have the capacity to tackle this enemy. It was an eerie feeling watching Adnan, during an assignment in southern Iraq, walk through the graveyard of his palm trees in Al-Bihar district of Basra Governorate in southern Iraq. Adnan told me many farmers in the region had to sell their land and relocate to other places because the salty seawater creeping up from the gulf had been destroying everything along its path. According to IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix more than 140,000 individuals have been displaced due to climate change since 2018. ©2023 IOM Iraq/Raber Aziz

Tackling the Silent Enemy: In recent years, the Government of Iraq has been working with UN agencies and international organizations, including IOM to implement programming to reverse the impact or develop mitigating measures and adapting mechanisms such as smart agriculture. Moreover, different local stakeholders including governmental sectors and civil society organizations came together in 2023 to develop Iraq’s first Annual Plan for Climate Change and Health and Migration, and the first Health Emergency Preparedness and Response (EPR) Plan for Thi-Qar governorate. ©2023 IOM Iraq/Raber Aziz

SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities